Improving Our Global Infrastructure: an International Geodesign Collaboration

The world faces a generic but critical challenge: How do we organize and conduct the very beginning and strategic stages of designing for longer-term changes in large, multi-system, multi-client and contentious contexts? This is a severely under-recognized problem in the face of crisis, risk or uncertainty—the most common conditions of our biggest societal challenges.


A major impediment to wise design and planning is the inability to share advances in the field quickly and effectively. The International Geodesign Collaboration ( was conceived as a means to compare the approaches and experiences of globally dispersed teams tackling the projects they would normally do, but using a common framework of guiding assumptions, project sizes, scenarios, analytical systems and presentation formats. By doing so, they enable direct comparisons among projects, revealing insights into the different priorities and constraints of teams working in contrasting governmental, climatic and demographic settings. 88 projects have been completed in thirty-seven countries

Geodesign (design at geographic scale) represents an emerging research area that integrates multiple disciplines and uses geographical information systems (GIS)-based analytic and design tools to help explore alternative future scenarios (Goodchild 2010, Steinitz 2012). Where conventional discipline-based approaches have not adequately addressed the transdisciplinary problems we face, geodesign offers a more holistic and creative way of seeking more successful solutions to complex challenges.  Fisher (2016) describes geodesign as “…allowing communities of people with common interests to find each other as well as generate alternative ways of addressing a challenge.”  With its roots more than fifty years ago in the origination of geographic information systems, geodesign has emerged over the last ten years as a key, structured, spatial-thinking focus for scientists and practitioners who work in the interstices among traditional disciplines. Geodesign has already been mobilized to address reconstruction planning after the Fukushima tsunami, to achieve resilience in the face of climate-related coastal changes for the southeastern United States, and to shape vital infrastructure for informal communities in Brazil, among many others. 


The promise of geodesign is high, but so far it has proceeded without identifying and capitalizing on the knowledge created in the many collaborations that have already occurred. 


To address the lack of shared knowledge, we have initiated a global project: Improving our Global Infrastructure: An International Collaboration, that has brought together teams from over 150 universities around the world to share their geodesign work as applied in their local regions. Teams are led by landscape architects, architects, urban designers and planners, engineers, or geographers, with direct participation of scientists such as ecologists (terrestrial, aquatic and human), physical, social and information scientists, development economists, and diverse residents of the study areas.

Project senior personnel:

Carl Steinitz, Alexander and Victoria Wiley Professor of Landscape Architecture and Planning, Emeritus, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Honorary professor, Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London. Systems architecture, workshop facilitation.

Brian Orland, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Penn State University. Formerly Rado Family Foundation/UGAF Professor of Geodesign, University of Georgia College of Environment+Design. 

Thomas Fisher, Director, Minnesota Design Center, Dayton Hudson Chair in Urban Design, University of Minnesota College of Design.

Ryan Perkl, Esri's green infrastructure lead and industry practice lead for geodesign in the Professional Services Division. Chief Planner 2019 Geodesign Summit.

Michael Gould, Esri Higher Education Director.

IGC Advisers

  • Michael Batty, University College London, UK

  • Stephen Ervin, Harvard Graduate School of Design, USA

  • Michael Flaxman, Geodesigntech, Berkeley, CA, USA

  • Christina von Haaren, Leibniz Universität Hannover, Germany

  • Ana Clara Moura, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil

  • Uri Avin, University of Maryland, College Park, USA

  • Allan Shearer, University of Texas Austin, USA

  • Stephen Sheppard, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

  • William Miller, wrmdesign, Redlands, CA, USA

Participating schools

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Locations of participants in the International Geodesign Collaboration

We are driven by a specific and exceptionally wicked problem: How do we identify and share the lessons and practices developed by a globally-dispersed array of experts so that the resulting knowledge can be leveraged to solve our most pressing societal needs?  We know that the solutions will call for deep integration across the traditional expertise in the physical, natural and social sciences, but they will be articulated through the land- and city-shaping of planners, designers and engineers.  We are interested in how multi-disciplinary teams in multi-institutional and multi-national groups consider and respond to the environmental, economic, and social impacts of development and engineered systems. These include structural components such as cultural and governmental differences, but also the leadership skills of individuals, team construction, and communication.


IGC studies are structured around the following research questions:

  • How do the different participant teams choose and define their systems?

  • How are global and local design scenarios identified and adapted?

  • How are evaluation and impact assessments defined across many partners?

  • How and why are the global studies more similar or different?


Our mechanism to achieve collaboration and comparability of project outcomes had five key components, already in place:


  1. A study group has identified a set of macro-level global changes consistent with the UN Sustainable Development Goals that all participants will be required to consider in developing their solutions. 

  2. We have pre-defined eight land systems under consideration in each local study based on examination of past geodesign studies:  1. Water infrastructure, 2. Agriculture, 3. Green infrastructure, 4. Energy infrastructure, 5. Transport infrastructure, 6. Industry and Commerce, 7. Residential and Mixed-use Development, and 8. Institutional Uses.  Groups drawn from among the participants have identified projected innovations within these that are disseminated via this website.

  3. We established two future planning horizons, at 2035 and 2050, and paths to achieve scenarios for those.  “Early Adopters” initiate design interventions in 2020; “Late Adopters” in 2035; and “Non Adopters” continue with business-as-usual.

  4. We established common spatial formats to enable the direct comparison of evaluation and impact model outputs.  Participants have chosen nested project sites at scales adhering to a square format, 0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 40, 80, and 160km on a side.

  5. We established graphic conventions, and color codes, as well as web-based communication to enable coordination and collaboration. We secured substantial contributed technical support from ESRI and Geodesignhub, two principal platforms for geodesign, for the creation of common datasets, data protocols, and geodesign workflow.


Representatives from all participant teams were invited to an IGC 2019 conference in February 2019 in Redlands, California, as a structured de-briefing to capture the outcome of this unprecedented examination of multiple globally-dispersed teams engaged in similar processes on the same timeline. A second meeting takes place in February 2020, also in Redlands, hosted by Esri.


We have assembled research teams to design, monitor and mine the rich data sets we are already creating to enhance research and teaching towards the kind of applied use-based science and geodesign which we believe is so urgently needed. This collaboration offers a unique opportunity not only to add robust case studies of convergent team science to the literature. It enables examination of the roles of team composition, leadership styles, and cultural norms and practices in influencing these types of projects.


Improving Our Global Infrastructure: an International Collaboration is an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking but an essential one if we are to find new ways to frame research questions and address them with meaningful and tractable solutions, while improving education and practice in geodesign.